Streetwise (Martin Bell, 1984)

The Criterion Collection, a continuing series of important classic and contemporary films presents Streetwise.

criterion logoMartin Bell’s Academy Award-nominated documentary portrays the lives of several desperate teenagers on the streets of downtown Seattle.  Thrown too young into a seedy, grown-up world, these runaways and castaways survive … but just barely.  Rat, the dumpster diver.  Tiny, the teen prostitute.  Shellie, the baby-faced blonde.  DeWayne, the hustler.  All old beyond their years.  All underage survivors fighting for life and love in the alleys and abandoned buildings of Washington’s Emerald City.  Streetwise is a late classic in cinema verité that insightfully reveals a harsh place and time too easily ignored by those outside it.

Disc Features:

  • New 2K digital film restoration, approved by director Martin Bell, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray edition
  • Erin, Bell’s 2003 short film combining footage of Erin “Tiny” Blackwell shot in 1983, 1991, and 2004
  • ABC report from 1993 revisiting Blackwell 10 years after Streetwise
  • New interview with Mary Ellen Mark with an accompanying gallery of her photography
  • New interview with Bell, Mark, and Blackwell
  • Interview with Megan Gibbard and Carrie Whitaker Henner of the King County Homeless Youth and Young Adult Initiative
  • PLUS:  A booklet featuring Cheryl McCall and Mary Ellen Mark’s July 1983 Life magazine article and a new essay by writer-producer Veena Sud

Writer Cheryl McCall and photographer Mary Ellen Mark had been assigned to produce an article on street kids for Life magazine, and the two decided to venture to Seattle, Washington, which had just been feted by Harper’s as “America’s Most Livable City,” in an effort to demonstrate that the problem of homeless and runaway children reached all corners of the country.  Following the article, “Streets of the Lost,” Mark returned to Seattle with her husband, filmmaker Martin Bell, to construct a documentary on the lives of these street kids, resulting in Bell’s film Streetwise (1984) and Mark’s accompanying 1988 book of the same title.  Bell’s generally plotless film employs the observational mode of direct cinema, following these kids as they hang out, interact, scrap, and hustle, providing narration in the musings of the children themselves.  The result is a highly affecting portrait of hopeless youngsters who choose the dangers of the streets over the abuses, poverties, and boredoms of home.

Bell and Mark cast Streetwise with an array of memorable figures.  Rat is a principled young man with systems to feed and shelter himself without sacrificing his dignity or exposing himself to those who hurt or exploit.  Lulu is a bullish and outspoken lesbian who imposes her will on those who share her sidewalks but fail to uphold her sense of honour and justice.  Patti and Munchkin fight and trick to make ends meet, unable to bear time apart.  DeWayne, a scrawny and undersized boy, struggles with the uncertainty of daily demands.  Tiny, a young prostitute with an uneasy home life with her alcoholic mother Pat, is by far Bell and Mark’s favourite and the star of the documentary as she most poignantly embodies the nexus of innocence, cynicism, and tragedy at work in the film.  Tiny became Streetwise‘s ambassador, attending the Oscars with Bell for the film’s Academy Award nomination, being the subject of subsequent work by Bell and Martin, and even being offered Hollywood film roles (which she turned down).  With 9 children on last report and married in the Seattle suburbs, Tiny fared much better than many of Streetwise‘s other figures who died young by disease, by random violence, and even by their own hand.

In his interview on Errol Morris’s The Thin Blue Line (1988), Joshua Oppenheimer discusses the lie of direct cinema – the idea that the filmmakers and their cameras can be truly forgotten by their subjects.  He offers the easy example of Grey Gardens (Albert Maysles, David Maysles, Ellen Hovde, and Muffie Meyer, 1976) and how Big and Little Edie compete for the camera’s attentions.  Streetwise similarly contains the same tensions, recounted on both sides by Mark and Bell.  On the one hand, the filmmakers discuss obtaining the trust of their subjects, resulting in opportunities to record candid and honest exchanges like Tiny’s argument with Pat or Rat’s emotional farewell with Tiny.  On the other, they talk about how kids would seek them out to appear on camera, and there are times that ring as less than true, such as DeWayne’s father’s posturing during a prison visit with his son.  But what makes this fundamental question of verité filmmaking so particularly significant to Streetwise is how its contradiction is represented by the documentary’s subjects – the street kids.

Read any discussion on Streetwise and you are presented with competing characterizations of the runaways, truants, and homeless kids as being either savvy veterans of street life (with corresponding aphorisms of “growing up too fast” and of “innocence lost”) or being at-risk children struggling to face adult adversities and dangers (with its own consistent references to “kids playing dress-up” and the like).  It is, at its essence, the same binary between authenticity and performance that is faced by direct cinema.  Are the kids in Streetwise behaving this way because they are that way or because the camera is fixed on them?  Have the streets changed what they are fundamentally or just how they represent themselves?  What influence does the camera have in the moment and what indelible mark do the streets leave in perpetuity?  The “truth” of these kids, of who they are and what they might become, is as much a question of the film as it is of the broader social issue it addresses.  And further, Bell’s modest shift to the melodramatic in the film’s latter half seems to threaten/reveal the political and social challenges that arise through narrativizing this problem.  Streetwise begs these questions about film form, while also putting them in context, as the children in Bell’s documentary are no less hurt or dead for the presence of his camera or the description given to how they coped with their conditions.

Mary Ellen Mark RatStreetwise once had a VHS release but never found its way onto a disc edition, and it has since fallen into obscurity despite once being widely hailed and popularly embraced.  The Criterion Collection would be the perfect setting for a special edition of Streetwise, adding to the label’s excellent documentary library, offering a late example of the cinema verité tradition, and restoring a forgotten masterpiece to the hearts and minds of cinephiles.  The film even finds kinship in the Collection with Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven (1978), a film that relies so strongly on the narration of young Linda (Linda Manz) who exhibits the same combination of naiveté and world-weariness as the kids in Streetwise.  It’s hard to imagine any cover treatment for Streetwise not relying heavily on Mary Ellen Mark’s exquisite photography and we’d love to see what material awaits in her own archives for use behind a wacky “C.”

Mary Ellen Mark TinyCredits:  Our proposed package naturally emphasizes Bell, Mark, and Blackwell given their prominence to Streetwise and the lasting relationship that followed.  Erin is a follow-up work by Bell as described above.  The Nightline episode also exists for inclusion much like the Today show interview included on Criterion’s edition of The Thin Blue Line.  We felt it necessary to provide a broader legacy to Streetwise and so we’ve included an interview with representatives of the King County Homeless Youth and Young Adult Initiative.  Resources for street kids were nearly non-existent 30 years ago and a special edition of Streetwise would be well-served to show how far Seattle has come since Bell and Mark’s film and how far it still has to go.  We’ve naturally included the Time article in the Criterion booklet, as well as an essay by Veena Sud, the creator of The Killing who loosely based the street kids in that program on young people like Lulu from Streetwise.

Update:  Almost immediately after posting this Criterion title proposal, we discovered that photographer and friend of the Collection Mary Ellen Mark passed away yesterday at the age of 75.  It’s a sad coincidence, but underlines the importance of not letting Streetwise be forgotten.  Fans of the wacky “C” should read Mark’s Top 10 and watch her recollections of Federico Fellini from the special edition of Satyricon (1969).

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